Posted by: thomstrat | July 12, 2010

Some Thoughts on Safes and Safe Deposit Boxes

In another post I talked about methods for securing your critical documents, which brought up the side-topic of safes vs. safe deposit boxes. Which is better for storing your critical documents? Quite frankly, it’s probably a toss-up, but here are a few things to think about:

  • Safe deposit boxes are at a separate location from your house, while your own safe still resides at home. Anything that happens to your home will happen to your safe. On the other hand, anything that happens to your bank happens to your safe deposit box.
  • Having your bank burn down is a problem, but chances are their safe has been secured in multiple ways against such an event. If somehow your documents are still destroyed, you will have the inconvenience of having to replace all those documents (and any other valuables you choose to lock up there), but it is an inconvenience only. If you’ve set up your records correctly, you still have copies you can work from in the mean time.
  • Banks have a reputation to uphold, as well as legal liability for items stored there. In the event of a disaster they will likely to everything they can to help you replace your lost documents.
  • Having your home burn down is a disaster that destroys your entire life, not just your critical documents. Even if your safe functions properly and protects your documents, it may still be several days until you can get access to them, as opposed to a few minutes if you have a safe deposit box and/or a backup electronic copy with someone you trust. That time could make all the difference if you need a copy of your home insurance policy.
  • Safe deposit boxes and safes both cost money. Assuming no fires in your home, the safe is likely to be cheaper if you maintain your storage for more than ten years. (Safe deposit boxes at my bank run between $15 and $80 a year, depending on size.) Safes, however, cannot be counted on to protect properly once they have been through a fire.
  • Safes are more convenient, but make it easier to get sloppy. If you pull something out to work on it for awhile, it may be easy to forget to put it back. The safe does you no good if the document is out in the open when trouble strikes.

If it were me, I’d go with a safe deposit box with a backup copy kept by a family member, but that’s largely a personal preference. If you do use a safe in your own home make sure you do have a backup copy stored somewhere else, like with a trusted family member or friend. Or in a safe deposit box. The recurring theme here is to have several backups.

The absolute worse case is having only the originals of your critical documents under no protection at all.

About Safes

According to my research, safes are not necessarily fireproof unless they specifically claim to be. Even then, make sure you check the test rating. You want a safe that has been tested for at least one hour, and is tested to 350 degrees (ie. if exposed to a fire for up to an hour the inside temperature will not exceed 350 degrees, the point at which paper burns).

If you plan to use electronic media, you will want one rated for at least one hour to 125 degrees. If the inside temperature exceeds 125 degrees the media will melt. These safes will generally cost more.

Research seems to agree that buying a safe tested at over two hours is an unnecessary expense. It would probably not be a good idea to store documents in a fireproof gun safe unless it has been tested to the above specifications.



  1. Thom, so glad you posted this. I have been wondering for a while whether safe deposit boxes were a good idea and better than a safe. Thanks for laying out the differences!

  2. While we admit to being partial to our sercure encrypted online storage service the point we make is that keeping a copy of paper documents in an encrypted online vault is probably a very good idea. Home theft, fire, etc won’t matter if you keep a copy of your important documents in a SwissDisk account. It’s amazing how many pages you can store in the free 50Mb account!

  3. who or what is SwissDisk?

    • They are a company that does computer backups of documents, apparently. Thom and I debated whether to post their comment — businesses frequently send random comments to blogs just to get their name out there. I finally allowed it just because it does bring up one more method of keeping your documents safe, not to particularly endorse their product. Most of them we just delete because it’s obviously some generic thing sent to everyone with particular key words in their blog and half the time the comment doesn’t even pertain to the post.

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